In less than half a century, Serbia morphed from hero to villain. And the country remains an outcast, the stench of Milosevic still in the air.
Despite light traffic on this Sunday, cars and trucks traveling from Serbia to Hungary were backed up at the border for a quarter mile. Border guards from EU member Hungary worked at a snail’s pace, fanning through passports, examining registrations, inspecting interiors.
Two and a half excruciating hours went by before my rental car was back on the Athens to Budapest highway, a 1,450-kilometer-long thoroughfare that transits non-EU Macedonia and Serbia.
Evidently, the Hungarians were carefully checking many of the vehicles in our stalled caravan that bore license plates from countries that are not so popular up north — Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia.
This particular highway also has a special reputation, having served in 2015 as a route for Mideast migrants seeking sanctuary in Germany. To many locals living near the Hungarian border, the trekking refugees were alien people, graphic proof that the European Union couldn’t control its external borders.
But look at it from the other side of the fence: Serbia and the five other Balkan countries that are not part of the EU are unhappy places. Most of them have governments that drive their citizens to despair for their entirely self-serving, future-nixing character.
Corruption is rife and economic activity far below what is required to provide an adequate level of jobs. Those jobs that are available go to insiders – those related or connected to the corrupt elites.
No wonder young people typically want out, knowing opportunities lie elsewhere. Serbian statistics reveal that an exodus of skilled people — a brain drain — is costing the country 58,000 people each year. Serbia’s population has been declining for well over a decade.
Non-EU Balkans in grey
Newly awakened to the malaise and downward drift in the Balkans, the European Union has again shifted its perspective onto the region. At the upcoming May 17th summit in Sofia, EU heads of state and government will confer with leaders from the troubled lands—Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia-Hercegovina.
This latest EU initiative, the first in a decade, is welcome. However, there is scant hope of real progress. What the EU is offering is the prospect of eventual membership, in return for undertaking the necessary economic and political reforms.
In visits to the region, European Council president Donald Tusk has suggested that Serbia and Montenegro could actually join the EU as early as 2025. EU expansion halted in 2013 when Croatia became the 28th member state.
Little appetite for further expansion
Amid challenges of rising populism and Brexit, there is little appetite in most member states to accept further expansion.
But even if the EU waves a green flag, it is doubtful that the countries in the Western Balkans will be ready by 2025. Serbia, the biggest “hole” in the present EU donut, faces enormous challenges. These include corruption, weak rule of law and refusal to recognize the independence of Kosovo, its breakaway southern province.
In addition, the stench of the Milosevic period lingers. Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s president, was a youthful information minister in 1998 under Milosovic. The latter man died in The Hague before he could be convicted of war crimes.
To the south, Macedonia achieved EU candidacy status in 2005, but little has happened since. Its progress is blocked by Greece, which has been bludgeoning its weak neighbor for two decades — over its name! Macedonia is a northern province of Greece and Athens claims exclusive patrimony over the term.
That particular issue appears on the brink of resolution, a development that could advance the integration process. Macedonia, or whatever it is to be called, hopes to begin accession talks this year.
Bosnia-Herzegovina remains a basket case with multiple administrations and more or less constant chaos since its civil war ended two decades ago.
Kosovo is similarly problematic. Five EU members that are facing real or imagined secessionist threats — Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Greece and Romania — still withhold recognition 10 years after Kosovo declared independence. Spain even floated the idea that it might not attend the Sofia summit if Kosovo is present.
The attention the EU now pays once again to the Western Balkans is also a result of China looking at the Balkans as an extension of the Belt and Road Initiative. That is why it has plans to upgrade the region’s infrastructure, particularly the rail line from Athens to Budapest.
The view from Belgrade
High politics aside, the view from Belgrade is instructive. When I came to Belgrade as a graduate student in 1967, this city was the bustling capital of a big diverse multi-cultural country, Yugoslavia.
Its citizens benefited from cold war competition, taking money and project aid from the United States and Russia. They could travel unencumbered to the west and the east. Belgraders lived at a high level and pitied the low living standards and tyranny in neighboring Hungary and Romania.
That’s all reversed now. In a dozen conversations, I didn’t meet one person who wished to remain in Serbia.
This point was driven home by a young Romanian family—husband, wife and daughter— that stayed at the same hotel as I did. They told me over breakfast that they had driven from Bucharest in a single day and were en route to Croatia for vacation. I was stunned at the reversal of fortunes.
In less than half a century Serbia morphed from hero to villain. And the country remains an outcast.
Good luck, Sofia conferees. The Balkans need you to make progress.
Editor’s note: Barry D. Wood has been reporting from the Balkans for a quarter century.